Developing Groups or Associations during the PhD

During my Undergraduate degree, I was the Queen of ‘extracurricular activities’. From creating a non-profit group on campus, to holding membership in a handful of other associations and organisations, I was always busy adding to my CV and networking across departments and interest groups. 

During my Master’s degree, I was just trying not to sink. Sure, I still worked and went to the occasional departmental gathering, but I didn’t really have the same involvement with my peers, the community, or with my University the same way I was used to in my Undergrad. 

Now, during my PhD, I have finally settled back into running and organising a group on campus- the University of Glasgow Onomastics Reading Group. I didn’t realise how much I missed this side of ‘me’ until it was missing for some time. It is difficult during your PhD to focus on anything outside of your PhD, but getting involved in groups and organisations, or better yet creating and running them, during the PhD can be extremely rewarding. But don’t take just my word for it…

The Scottish Association for the Study of America, and The War Through Other Stuff Society, are both highly successful and active PhD student-led groups. Their organisers have kindly provided me with some insight as to how they managed to create and build up their groups alongside their PhD, and how you could do the same.

What is the group/association you created or manage?

The Scottish Association for the Study of America 

The War Through Other Stuff Society

Is the group primarily for PhD researchers or is it open to another demographic?

We run a bi-annual event specifically for PhD researchers, but the society itself is open to everyone interested in the Study of America.  Our annual conference tries to promote connections across the academic spectrum and bring together senior academics, ECRS and PhD’s.

We are not only for PhD students but reach out to academics of all career stages, those working in the heritage sector, the arts, and beyond.

 Are you the sole organiser?

 I am not! I am part of a wonderful committee, each of its members are responsible for helping the society in different ways.  The committee has a good balance of established academics, ECRs and PhD students.  I am the social media secretary, responsible for promoting things of interest to our members on our various social media pages.  In addition to my role on the committee, however, I have organised one of the past annual conferences, and am currently organising the 2019 one. 

The society started in 2017 when three PhD students, myself, Laura Harrison and Catherine Bateson, put on a conference at the University of Edinburgh. The response was so positive (see past posts on the SGSAH blog, such as this post on the first ‘War Through Other Stuff’ Conference!) that we decided to carry on, and thus added the word ‘Society’ to the end of our conference name! We have also taken on three additional team members, all of whom are also currently PhD students.


 Have you seen much growth in participation since you began?

I was first made aware of SASA when I was a masters student, and since then participation has increased a lot.  The first conference I helped to organise in 2016 was one of the largest we’ve ever had, and we are hoping to see the same trend with the conference this year. 

We have (since the first ‘War Through Other Stuff’ Conference) put on three more events – two one-day conference style workshops and a twitter conference, and are working on a publication.

 If so, how did you increase participation numbers?

A lot of it is down to the role of the social media secretary, I think.  The office-bearer before me did a great job of setting up a system of weekly posts on Facebook and twitter that include cfps, fellowship and funding opportunities as well as various event that may be of interest.  The promotion of these has led to a community of people who expect the weekly update, and then attend the various events.  It’s been really wonderful to see similar faces at American Studies events across Scotland.


 What are your primary goals with the group/association?

‘War Through Other Stuff’ is concerned with the non-military history of war, and seeks to illustrate the varied and extensive impact of war on society, culture, and the environment, both historically and in the present day.

Through a range of accessible and inclusive events, publications, an active online presence, and other means of knowledge exchange, the society brings together interested parties from academia, the heritage sector, industry, and the public to promote relevant research, make connections, and provide a platform. We want to better understand how war is experienced by those who are off the battlefield, by those whose voices have been lost, or whose experiences have been overwritten.

What would you count as your biggest success with the group/association?

The 2016 conference was a huge success, and I’m really proud of how well everything came together that day. Attendance was much larger than it had been in previous years, and I had a really great, albeit busy day, getting to know everyone and making sure everything went smoothly.  It was the first conference I organized as well, so SASA will always hold a special place in my heart because of that day. 

Our biggest success has been to create inclusive and accessible events that engage wide audiences- see more on the Twitter conference held recently here.



 What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a group organiser or creator?

I’m only about 5 months in, so come back to me in a year and I’ll see if I have a better answer… right now everything is going quite smoothly.

Our biggest struggle is a lack of time (5/6 are in the final year of their PhD / just starting first ECR jobs) and the geographic distance between us – Leeds, Edinburgh, France, Oxford and Bristol currently. Most significantly we are not funded – the WTOS bank account currently has a balance of £11. So any event we plan has to factor in the money issue – the time spent on applications, the uncertainty, the need to charge attendees to events etc. But the Twitter conference was a great way to cut all those corners – no fees, no costs, no travel – a truly international and completely free event!

 How did you balance your own PhD along with the responsibilities of running a group/organisation?

That is the eternal question, isn’t it?  Scheduling is incredibly important.  I keep an ever growing list of American Studies events that may be of interest to our followers, and then post them as appropriate.  This means in one document I have a long list of events for weekly posts, which also helps me to remember when event deadlines are coming so I can remind everyone else.  Routinely all of my SASA work takes place on a Monday morning – the collation and creation of the post, and then subsequent promotion of it.  Occasionally I have to do another post later in the week as well, but that is not as often.    Knowing that Monday is SASA day makes scheduling much easier – if I give time every Monday morning for it, then it limits the impact it has the rest of my week.

For other duties, the conference organisation in particular, I just try to be as prepared as early as possible.  This year I’m lucky, because I have already planned one SASA conference and understand the timeline we are working towards.  This lets me plan things ahead of time, so my conference deadlines don’t clash with my PhD deadlines.

I will also say, I’m lucky enough that with all things SASA I’m never completely on my own.  The committee is wonderful, and understanding, so anytime I need help with anything they are always happy to pitch in.   Committee members are often my greatest source for American Studies news.  They are all really good at sending me relevant things that they have come across that may be good for weekly posts.  Remembering to ask for help is always really important, and I’m lucky that someone is always willing to give it.

 Do you have any advice for other PhD researchers who might be looking to create or manage a group/association during their PhD?

Don’t try to do everything alone.  Especially if you are helping to set up the group.  While having complete control with something has its benefits, it also leaves you with complete responsibility.  Using the people around you as resources in endeavours like this is really important.  Most people, in my experience, have been willing to help when they are asked. 

Its’ also to important to remember that your PhD is your priority.  Forming/Managing different associations is a wonderful experience to have, and often helps form great communities to be a part of, but the thesis itself is the most important thing.  Understanding when going into a management/founding position that it shouldn’t take up all of your time is crucial.

I would definitely recommend starting a society, organising a conference or joining a PhD group while doing your PhD. I have met incredible people through founding WTOS and have gained so many genuinely useful skills. I also know that it also raises my profile as an ECR, which feels hugely valuable as I attempt to start my post-PhD career.


You can find more out about The Scottish Association for the Study of America and The War Through Other Stuff Society by finding them on Social Media:

The War Through Other Stuff Society and follow us on Twitter @stuffofwar

The Scottish Association for the Study of America can be found on Twitter @ScotAmStudies and through Facebook.

I would also like to thank Lucie Whitmore of War Through Other Stuff for her contributions to this article, as well as Krysten Blackstone from The Scottish Association for the Study of America for hers. 

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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